Childhood of a Leader Review
With such a blunt title Brady Corbet sets his stall out early with debut Childhood of a Leader. We’re left in no doubt as to the fate of the titular child but that doesn’t prevent Corbet from making the inevitable outcome a mysterious swirl of ambiguity, horror and unuttered violence. We’re catapulted, certainly not eased, into a world struggling to come to terms with its loss of innocence following World War One. Childhood of a Leader is not so much a cinematic chronicle of the subsequent rise of European fascism, but is a study of the human condition with a bleak and terminal prognosis. Under the sparse glow of candlelight, Corbet enacts a Freudian-esq psychological study of the central family’s tumultuous relations that extends far beyond the mere question of nature versus nurture in mesmerising fashion.
The film begins in 1918 where American boy, Prescott (Tom Sweet), is living in the French countryside with his Mother (Bérénice Bejo), a self professed ‘citizen of the world’, and Father (Liam Cunningham) who is aiding Woodrow Wilson in Paris to thrash out the terms of what would come to be known as the Treaty of Versailles. We first spy Prescott through a window as he’s lining up for a nativity rehearsal at the local church. He’s the last in the line of children and the camera slowly pans towards him leaving him all alone in the frame of the window immediately positioning him as a clear outsider. Soon after the rehearsal he’s reprimanded for throwing rocks at the congregation leaving the church. Prescott’s first ‘tantrum’ introduces us to his troublesome nature.
The family are housed in a cold austere mansion decaying like Europe from its once opulent grandeur with a wash of pale winter air courtesy of Lol Crawley’s distinct camerawork. Not even the Barry Lyndon style candlelight can muster a semblance of warmth in this exceptionally bleak house. Were it not for the occasional presence of a spluttering motor car or radio transmission you would swear that we had landed in a far earlier era. The dour outfits and omnipresence of religion are stifling constraints on Prescott from a time closer to the puritanical middle ages rather than the 20th Century. Corbet’s compositions have a meticulous symmetry that echoes renaissance paintings which only adds to the archaic aura. In this lifeless landscape Crawley focuses her efforts on isolating Prescott from the world around him by continually framing him alone. Similarly we feel Prescott’s growing frustration as he stalks the mansion in a series of tracking shots akin to Alan Clarke’s renowned style.
Matching the technical mastery is the psychological layer that underpins the ominous atmosphere. Very little is explicitly stated throughout the film. Instead Corbet favours suggestive ambiguity to the fractured nature of the family. There’s hints at an affair between the authoritarian Father and Prescott’s French teacher Ada (Stacy Martin), who Prescott himself lusts after in a Freudian twist. Elsewhere the Mother has secretive dealings with jaded journalist Charles (Robert Pattinson) as well as insecurities over her own maternal duties being usurped by the various house staff. Inspired by the truculence around him Prescott becomes increasingly devious, soon beating the grown-ups at their own games. When Prescott purposely belts the moral of his French story “little friends may prove great friends” you realise he’s fully aware of the statements manipulative potential.
Divided into chapters based around ‘Tantrums’, perhaps the most striking element of the films comes courtesy of the opening prologue, or as its elegantly labelled, ‘Overture’. A montage of grainy WWI mundanity and atrocity is soundtracked by an orchestral barrage courtesy of the enigmatic Scott Walker. Like Walker’s Avant-Garde excursions with albums Tilt, Drift and Bish Bosch, his work on Childhood of a Leader is about as far removed from easy listening as sonically possible. Apparently mixed to 5% above the accepted cinema sound levels, the booming wall of sound conjures an intense atmosphere of suspense and horror. Matched with the harrowing sights of crashing fighter planes and starving peasants Walker’s composition summons the hysteria of a world on its knees; bombs, death, madness and mayhem. The blasts of woodwind and slashes of string are like a deranged, certainly psychotic, reimagining of Bernard Hermann’s iconic work on Psycho. Quite how director Corbet enticed the reclusive Walker out of his secretive shroud to compose for the film is a mystery worthy of cinematic examination, but its value and impact on fostering an ominous atmosphere on Childhood of a Leader is absolutely unquestionable.
Childhood of a Leader’s clearly defined styles all come together in a delirious orgy of fanaticism and fascism. The camera spins uncontrollably and the score convulses through a frenzy of bodies rallying to the cry of their new leader – revealing him in a baffling but carefully crafted manner that provides a walloping pay off. Through Prescott and his family Corbet presents us with a microcosm of humanity’s ills. They may not justify the child’s inevitable fate, but Corbet deals in cerebral suggestion rather than certainty. However, when early on Charles offers the prescient John Fowles quote; “That was the tragedy. Not that one man has the courage to be evil, but that so many have not the courage to be good”, the great irony is explicit. While the Father believes he’s achieved something noble crushing Germany with Treaty of Versailles, he’s fostering something far worse in the depths of his own home. It’s a rather simple hypothesis but Corbet executes his debut with the gravitas, imagination and assurance of a vintage European auteur.
9/10 – A Leader of Men